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Published: Sunday, 7/21/2002

Free TIP: Don't do it

As an element of a comprehensive homeland security program, one of the goofiest proposed so far is a plan, called TIPS, to muster citizens into what looks like a loosely-organized band of internal informants.

TIPS stands for Terrorism Information and Prevention System. Volunteers would call in information on “suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity” to a toll-free national telephone number or report it on-line.

According to the Web site of Citizen Corps, which would oversee the operation, “information received will be entered into [a] national database and referred electronically to a point of contact in each state as appropriate.”

The program is supposed to involve “the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to see potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places.”

While the intent is laudable, why create an expensive new bureaucracy? Every village, city, township, and county in the country already has at least one place for reporting suspicious activity. It's called the police (or sheriff's) department.

Local safety forces have the expertise and judgment to screen such calls, which likely would include a lot of erroneous or irrelevant information and plenty of bum leads from well-meaning but overzealous tipsters.

Furthermore, the federal government should not be in the business of organizing anything that resembles, or could be converted to, a national system of informants.

Tom Ridge, homeland security director, insists that TIPS would merely involve casual observation by such people as truckers, mail carriers, train conductors, ship captains, and utility employees. “The last thing we want is Americans spying on Americans.” The Postal Service, however, declined to participate.

If Mr. Ridge is smart, he will short-circuit this superfluous program and use the money instead to bolster local law enforcement. The terrorist threat notwithstanding, enough paranoia already exists in the populace without raising the specter of Big Brother watching from every corner.



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